Boston may no longer be the Hub of the Universe, but its Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area remains the undisputed capital of America in at least one respect—home of suicidal poetesses.
The western suburbs, where I live, form American poetry’s Bermuda Triangle. Sylvia Plath, raised in Wellesley, took her life by gas from her oven. Anne Sexton, born in Newton, locked herself in her garage in Weston with the car running.
We may be number one, but we are not alone. Psychologists have confirmed by extensive research that female poets commit suicide at a greater rate than other women, writers generally and male poets.
Separating cause from effect is difficult, since poetry may attract those whose creativity is a cousin to mental illness. Further, the professionals who decide which poetry succeeds—critics, editors, and publishers—may by their choices implicitly promote the expectation that the only good poets, male and female, are the unstable ones. When Anne Sexton heard of Plath’s suicide she is reported to have said “Good career move.”
The link between suicide and confessional poetry is important for reasons other than the aesthetic. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24; girls are more likely to attempt suicide, although boys are four times more successful. Faced with these grim facts, it makes sense to survey the current state of writing instruction to make sure we aren’t making a bad problem worse.
In American high schools today, you will find a curious imbalance between creative writing and non-fiction. At the Boston Latin School, America’s oldest public school, traditional history papers haven’t been assigned for nearly two decades. Student literary magazines abound while publications devoted to students’ non-fiction are rare.
Into this void has flowed a treacly concoction that rarely rises above the level of a schoolgirl’s diary. Teens are encouraged to write in the style of the mixed genre known as “creative non-fiction,” an oxymoron to writers of a certain age. Long on self-regard and short on research, it is unclear how such writing is supposed to prepare students for the real world. Teachers may prefer self-centered creative writing to academic non-fiction since it is easier to grade.
While writing is often touted as a therapeutic activity, not all writing is equal in this regard, and there is evidence that the sort of introspective verse that adolescents tend to produce can do more harm than good. Some studies have found that, among the young, writing concrete narratives produces a more positive self-image than short, self-absorbed works, while others have shown that expressive writing about traumatic experiences increases depression and suicidal tendencies. In other words, by encouraging young girls and boys to write about nothing but their feelings and troubles, we may be adding fuel to adolescent fires.
What adults should do, as is often the case, is to encourage kids to think about something other than themselves. And perhaps to begin their study of poetry with Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” rather than Sexton’s “Wanting to Die.”